Los Descorchadores : the cork men of Andalucia
Updated: Sep 10
The pickup truck journey is full of dust, innuendo and workman camaraderie. These men are the "Descorchadores". They live and work together for the hot summer season in southern Spain. Here, they de-robe trees, skilfully stripping cork bark, "corcho" from the cork oak, intense work that begins at 7am. This tree, the "Alcornoque", is endemic to southwest Europe and northwest Africa and this is where your wine bottle stops, flooring and pin boards come from - for now.
Squatting on the pickup truck floor, I give up seeking a comfortable position and allow the pins and needles to set in. I attempt shallow breaths through my nose but can feel the dust billowing up from the dirt track already between my teeth. We pass scores, maybe hundreds of trees already harvested by these men, standing naked and orange, lit by the afternoon searing sun. Piles of gathered, flattened cork bark lay ready to be hauled out from the scorched forest floor.
Working below the canopy, in the shade, allows these men to harvest through even the hottest part of the Andalucia summer. Temperatures here regularly pass 40 degrees celsius. Most other manual work in this region stops before 2pm, owing to the brutal, debilitating heat.
The men, some in their twenties, others in their thirties and two or three over 50, go about their routine in relative silence. Working their axes, especially made for this job, with acute accuracy. They swing under arm, over arm or while straddling branches, sometime working them blindly with another man below. The descorchadores score the trunk in straight lines before peeling back long panels of bark, using both ends of the axe, their hands and feet to work the cork. The process leaves these tree unharmed.
These trees were last harvested 9 years prior - the gestation period for cork bark. And the price when sold on is calculated by weight, being paid a fixed price per kilo.
The smaller trees are worked by individuals and the larger ones in teams of three or four. It takes just minutes to complete each tree. No verbal communication appears to be required, the men simply understand what the other's role is. The work is dangerous with axes swung into the trunk next to the flesh of the next man. I don't see any missing fingers, but the men show off their scars when work finishes for the day at 7pm. Most of their injuries are to the hands and legs and some even to the face.
The workforce lives in a cattle shed at the foot of the forest hill during the cork season. Post work, the scene they form reminds me of a company of soldiers returning from a contact in the highlands of Vietnam. They're fatigued but still far from having exhausted their list of jokes. Two or three are slouched on camp beds, a pair share cigarettes and beer and another man checks the axes - their weapons. Outside, another washes himself using a crudely built shower made from a hose pipe, his head full of soap suds just visible from the other side of a wall.
The product harvested from this forest is eventually destined for Portugal were there is already a buyer waiting. But when this forest has been fully stripped, these men wont be back here for another nine years. They will move on to the next piping hot province to do battle with the trees again.
But for how long will this natural product remain a commodity? The tops of wine bottles are steadily being replaced with cheaper and quicker to manufacture alternatives. Plastic stoppers and aluminium screw tops form part of a growing list of single use items that are simply to be thrown "away". Few, if any of these cheaper replacements for cork stoppers are ever recycled... to be continued.